A coaching client told me she was old.
“Some young up-and-comer got the job,” said this 44-year-old marketing professional with 20 years’ experience in her field.
I paused, trying to figure out where to start.
“Hang on,” I said. “I have to yell at you.”
She wasn’t actually even a client yet. We were on an initial call to talk about whether coaching might be helpful to her and here I was, going off on the poor woman. (Interesting business model there, Kathryn.)
“This story that you’re old is not helpful,” I began. “You don’t know who got that job or what capabilities they have. The explanation that you’re ‘old’ is just a story you’re telling yourself.”
I took a breath and continued my rant.
“It’s not a helpful story because there is nothing you can do about being 44 years old,” I explained from my very lofty perspective as a 50-year-old.
“Being 44 years old is awesome: You’re a grown-up. In addition to all your education and smarts, you have 20 years’ of experience under your belt,” I said. “And this starts to look like wisdom as we get older.”
Writing this column, I paused to look up “wisdom.” It’s the “quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment,” according to dictionary.com. In other words, good traits for companies to hire.
It’s all well and good to talk about the employability of wisdom, but as a career coach, I know ageism is a real thing; it is naïve to pretend otherwise. An April 2019 New York Times article lists the forms ageism often takes: “pervasive employment discrimination, biased health care, media caricatures or invisibility.”
“When internalized by older adults themselves, ageist views can lead to poorer mental and physical health,” according to the article.
Well, then. The World Health Organization, which is leading a global campaign to combat ageism, can take on the systemic issues. In the meantime, I’ll yell at coaching clients internalizing those messages.
“To a kid, you may be old at 44,” I said to my client. “But I see you hitting the stride of your career: ambitious and able to combine your knowledge with your years of experience.”
I wondered out loud: “Why would you want to be anywhere else in your career?”
As a 50-year-old woman, learning about aging is suddenly as interesting and relevant to me as “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was in my 20s and childbirth was in my 30s.
Am I getting slower and dumber, less able to keep up with young up-and-comers? A 2008 study out of the Women’s Health Clinic in Ontario, Canada, tested whether menopausal women had slower mental reflexes than fertile women. In some trials, the younger group scored slightly higher.
“The MRIs of the older women showed less activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that registers emotion,” explains Darcey Steinke in her riveting 2019 book, “Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life.”
Dr. Benicio Frey, the study lead, told Steinke, “We hypothesized that the midlife transition might be associated with a shift toward greater top-down regulation with subsequent more cognitive control and less emotional reactivity.”
“In other words, menopausal women, counter to cultural stereotypes, react with fewer emotional highs and lows than younger women, and they pause to contemplate before they answer,” Steinke explains.
I knew we were getting older and wiser.
“Disparaging yourself as ‘old’ is a bad habit,” I told my client. “Let’s figure out a different story about aging.”
First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.